Defamation

If someone causes harm to your reputation by publishing material about you that changes the way people feel about you, you may have been harmed in a legal sense. Not all offensive, embarrasing or upsetting remarks cause harm your reputation.

Defamation is when words have been spoken or written which:

  • harm your reputation in the eyes of ordinary people in the community,
  • harm your reputation in your trade or profession (eg lead you to get less work), or
  • are likely to result in you being shunned, avoided, made fun of, or despised.
A claim for defamation is a complex, time consuming and expensive legal matter.

The law in Western Australia encourages people to resolve disputes about defamation without going to court. Even if defamation is proven, it does not mean the court will award you much or anything in damages.

You should get legal advice if you are thinking of beginning court action for defamation or defending an accusation. Legal Aid WA does not give legal advice about defamation, but there are other organisations that can help. 

Find out:

  • what defamation can involve
  • what are some of the defences to allegations of defamation
  • the steps you can take if you are being harassed, threatened or defamed online.

What things can involve defamation?

Defamation can happen whenever material is published that causes harm to someone else's reputation. You can defame a person without mentioning their name or without meaning to cause any harm. Publication can include:

  • speaking
  • writing, including on the internet, for example, on Facebook
  • drawing
  • photographing, or
  • blogging. 

It is only defamation if the person who receives or hears the material understands that it is defamatory. Things like gossip or embarrassing stories are unpleasant, but do not amount to defamation unless they cause the required harm to your reputation.

Are there defences to defamation?

In some situations, a person can make statements that harm your reputation without being defamatory. For example:

  • if the comments are shown to be substantially true.
  • if the comments were made or published under some form of legal privilege. Privilege occurs in situations when the law protects people's rights to express themselves, such as a speech in parliament, or statements made in a court of law.
  • if the publication involves fair reporting about proceeding of public concern or from documents that are already publicly available.
  • if the publication is partly protected by privilege, such as making reasonable comments about work performance to a potential employer as a referee.

Defamation claims and defences are complicated and technical. You should get legal advice about your situation.

Do time limits apply to take legal action?

If you have been defamed, you can go to court to get compensation for the harm caused. Strict time limits apply. You should get legal advice if you are thinking of beginning court action for defamation or defending an accusation.

What can I do if I am being harassed, threatened or defamed online?

You do not have to put up with being harassed, threatened or defamed online. You should take action to try to stop it.

You can:

  • ask the person to remove the comments or information you do not like. If they refuse, contact the site administrator and ask them to remove the information, or 
  • tell a teacher, the principal or your school counsellor if you are a school student and the person who made the comments is also at your school. They may be able to help have the information removed.

Some harassment or threats may break criminal laws. 

Can defamation be a criminal offence?

In Western Australia, there is an offence of criminal defamation to cover the publication of some defamatory matter about another living person. If someone has made offensive or threatening statements they may have also committed other offences.

If you think someone has broken the law, you can report the incident to your local police or call Crime Stoppers WA on 1800 333 000.

What if someone has shared personal information about me from my medical records?

You could contact the person and ask them to not pass on personal information. You may be able to make a complaint about the medical information being improperly disclosed to the person who has been telling people about it.

 

Reviewed: 2 July 2018

Disclaimer

The information displayed on this page is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. If you have a legal problem, you should see a lawyer. Legal Aid Western Australia aims to provide information that is accurate, however does not accept responsibility for any errors or omissions in the information provided on this page or incorporated into it by reference.